I used to be very shy.
Many people who know me now find that hard to believe but it’s true. I was a pushover growing up, for both physical and psychological reasons. Physically I was thin, and for a boy in 80s Nigeria that was bad news: it meant being literally pushed over during football games and being pushed around because I didn’t look like I could take most people on in a fight. (I couldn’t.)
But that was nothing compared to the way I felt inside.
You might think I got bullied growing up as I described, but I didn’t. Not mostly. My experience was more about the fear of being bullied. That fear got much worse in secondary school: where social standing was by then a form of currency and I felt my poverty more deeply. So I didn’t spend much of my time in secondary school trying to fit in.
My main goal was not standing out too much.
As you might imagine, I don’t recall secondary school with any particular fondness. I wasn’t good at sports or adept at social interaction. And while I did well enough in my classes, I was far more interested in reading literally anything else: from novels to textbooks that weren’t school related. It wasn’t until I got to uni that things changed.
That’s when it became clear to me that I couldn’t keep living on others’ terms.
It’s not like I hadn’t lived on my own terms before. I was sort of doing it already, even in secondary school. I just hadn’t recognised it in any deliberate way. I’d kept reading because I loved it, even though my mum banned it during term time (I just hid it from her) and even though it certainly didn’t help my non-cool kids status. I even stopped paying attention to following football because I realised I wasn’t actually interested in it—I only watched it because I had felt like I was supposed to. And I finally started writing.
But the real change was when I stopped letting people push me over.
And the reason it took until uni? Well it was a brand new environment and I was still getting pushed over. For the first I was faced with the possibility that there was maybe something about me that gave off vibes that I could be pushed over.
It’s been one of my most liberating moments.
On the heels of that realisation it became clear to me things didn’t have to continue that way. And instead of simply feeling bad I started thinking in terms of what I could identify about people who seemed to be good at not being pushed and trying to identify what I was getting wrong.
Basically, I learned to be assertive. At the time, though, I thought of it as learning to live on my own terms. And one thing I realised very quickly was that people who were good at engaging well with others were just really good at stating what they wanted and expected from those around them.
And that cut both ways: stating what you expect included pointing out when you get the opposite. I learned from them not to simply hope I’d be treated well but to expect it, and when I wasn’t, to point it out and demand better.
Because up until then, I realised, I’d been mostly hoping people would treat me well.
And many people will. But the unfortunate fact is many people will also treat you shabbily if they think they might be able to get away with it. They’re not necessarily terrible people either—even otherwise decent people will treat you shabbily without realising they are because you seem okay with it.
That’s the other thing I came to learn: people will treat you based on what they think you’re okay with.
Which means it’s up to you to be upfront about what you’re okay with and what you aren’t.
And then pay attention to who takes that seriously.
Because what you’ll find as soon as you start being clear about your terms is you can start to tell people by how they respond to you.
It often puts me in mind of playing as a child. My brothers and I often play-fought, sometimes with pretend weapons: straw swords, paper guns, that sort of thing. But we understood that it was play and even a hint of anyone being hurt brought the whole thing to an instant stop. We would even use this to comic effect by pretending to be hurt, and then being unable to hold our laughter at the concern of everyone else.
Outside of home though, it was a different story. I quickly learned some children took the game too seriously and were actually trying to hit and hurt you. Or they kept trying to cheat because they wanted to win. Or they threw the board because they were losing and couldn’t take it. You quickly learned to not play with such kids because they didn’t know how to play. For them everything was about dominance.
Some people are, unfortunately, still like that as adults: they don’t know how to play, how to engage without dominating the other person.
Some of these kinds of people respond to a firm setting of limits. If you make it clear what you will and won’t accept, and how you will escalate if they don’t play well, many people who can’t play will adjust. It’s not fun to do, and especially because you have to be quite direct about it. But I’ve come to realise if people like that were good at picking up on hints, they wouldn’t be that much of a problem to begin with.
You’ll just have to give it to them straight.
And you have to be consistent about it, too. When I was first learning to state my terms I would often be tempted to make exceptions. I’d think to myself: I just told them what I’d like, maybe I should not make this next one a thing.
Took a few repeats of being pushed over again before I realised I was just giving people reason to think I didn’t mean any of my terms.
After all, if the exception becomes more frequent than the rule, then it’s really the rule.
It’s not been easy. The old inclinations still exist, and there’s a part of me that still feels like it’s easier to just “let things go” rather than be assertive. But I also know enough now to know that “letting things go” too often ends in tears and they never really “go,” anyway. They just accumulate and get worse and harder to deal with if not outright impossible.
So I’ve kept at it. At working harder to be direct and consistent in making my position clear. And the paradoxical thing is I’ve found that a lot of initially difficult interactions have become actually stronger. I didn’t expect that when I first trying to practice all this but it makes sense now: our relationships were now built on mutual respect.
Not in every case, of course. Some people refuse to adjust. They never learn how to play. But that’s on them, not you.
You don’t have to play with them, either. Your terms.